Tuesday, May 23, 2017

WE RANK 'EM: Ranking Nolan

Who comes to mind when I ask you who the most controversial director working today is? Definitely Christopher Nolan, right? Oh, it's not? Well, to be honest, we didn't think so, either, until the Flock over here basically went all Civil War (I was Cap; Vance was Ant-Man) over his filmography. So we decided to make an accord over the whole business and just rank all his movies. Here they are, ranked from lowest scoring to highest:

(2002) Insomnia 4.4

I've never been a fan of Al Pacino, so I derived some schadenfreude out of seeing him thrash around, sleepless. I, however, wanted nothing more than to fall asleep and forget I ever saw this boring clod of night-soil. -Sean

Terrible remake of an excellent film. -Chloe

Not only does his star Al Pacino, i.e. the most overrated actor of a generation, but it's a crap remake of an excellent Swedish/Norwegian film. Like most remakes, this one should never have been made.  -The G

(2014) Interstellar 

Score: 4.8

I thought this movie was delightful. My quibble with the movie is the quasi supernatural stuff with Cooper and Murphy and how that resolves in the black hole / tesseract / whatever the hell that mess was. I disliked that resolution, but everything else? Wonderful. -Joe

Despite an almost visceral dislike of Matthew McConaughey's smug face, and extreme disappointment with the Soylent Green-like revelation that it's just super-evolved humans, not gods or aliens or anything, who reach through time and tesseracts to save a smirking idiot like him, the world-building is lush, and despite its way-too-long running time, the story is thrumming with tension (thanks, I think, to the excellent use of sound throughout).  -Sean

You want to talk overrated? I'll tell you what's overrated: this steaming pile of hot garbage. I saw it at the Hollywood Cineramadome on opening night, where the crowd tends to be a bit drunk and a bit rowdy. Needless to say, the cringeworthy dialogue elicited laughter on more than one occasion. That said, there might be a good 90 minute movie in this bloated, 169 minute monstrosity. Just terrible.  -The G

One of the five worst movies I have ever seen. I would give it a negative rating if I could. Boring, pretentious, and comically inept. Any smart science is lost in how stupid this movie is. -Dean

(2012) The Dark Knight Rises 

Score: 6.2

It had all the problems of Dark Knight (the all-or-nothing morality, etc.) and more: a totally gratuitous femme fatale in the underutilized Marion Cotillard, the 'reveal' of her true colors about as exciting as a mid-career M. Night Shymalan twist. Unfortunately, it also had little of interest; I was cheering for Bane. -Sean

I'm not really sure what the complaints are all about. -Joe (I'll fill you in- Dean)

(2005) Batman Begins 

Score: 6.5

I hate prolonged origin stories and that's what this film is all about. Plus the growl voice is super lame. -The G

I really enjoyed this when it came out. It was the first time I saw anybody own onscreen how psychologically screwed up Bruce Wayne is, and I dug that. -Vance

It's Batman. Origin stories are so unnecessary at this point. -Joe

(1998) Following 

Score: 6.8

I walked away from this movie thinking, "Yeah, that was good," not thinking, "Yeah, that was pretty good for spending no money except on film stock," and that's a true testament to what this film gets right. I could write an essay about how hard it is to accomplish something like this in the way Nolan & crew accomplished it, but I'll just say it's a hell of a first at-bat. -Vance

An extraordinary first effort, cinematographic gold despite the tiny budget, this put the world on notice to expect great things from Nolan. -Sean

(2010) Inception 

Score: 7.2

An OK film that I think gets remembered more for the ending than the actual movie. Great visuals and performances (bonus for basically making the US aware of Tom Hardy) -Dean

It doesn't really make sense, but it's beautiful and strange, and really, what more do we want in a good film than that? -Sean

For years, I had an ongoing Surrealist art project with a friend, so I'm a sucker for dream stuff. This was a big-budget movie that -- while not deep -- was at least thoughtful, and not based on a franchise. It's the kind of movie I wish there were many more of. -Vance

(2006) The Prestige 

Score: 7.5

Awful adaptation of a great book, knows nothing about stage magic, empty af (But David Bowie) -Chloe

One of my all-time favorite movies. Great writing, direction and performances throughout. -Dean

(2008) The Dark Knight 

Score: 7.6

An excellent superhero film, and it has a really badass score too. A bit empty, but remember--this is a superhero film. They are all empty. I loved both villains. -The G

This is about as good as a superhero movie can be, really. Of course the morality is laughably black and white, but it's got twists, it's got turns; you'll laugh, you'll cry--it was better than Cats! -Sean

I know I'm in the minority. Yes, Heath Ledger is great, but the repeated "Save one or the other" plot device bored me, and I have a kid who was the same age as Gordon's, so watching Dent hold a gun to his head for 19 hours (felt like it) was unbearable. A profoundly negative theatrical experience for me. -Vance

I love this movie- academically. It does so many thing right, and well, and Ledger is amazing. Then I re-watched it the other day, and does anyone else remember that this movie is eight hours long? No matter how good your movie is, if the audience is checking their watch with 45 minutes to go, it's too long and too overstuffed. And that is with a lot of very tight editing. -Dean

(2000) Memento 

Score: 8.4

Great idea, interesting filmwork and editing, GUY PIERCE -Chloe

A film so good it was unsettling, thanks to Nolan's technical skill: imagine this story in the hands of a more established (at that time) director! -Sean

Enjoyed this one when it came out; saw it again a few years ago and felt it mostly held up. -The G  

Those are our thoughts on Christopher Nolan's films- what are yours? Chime in!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reading the Hugos: Novella

Welcome to the first entry in Reading the Hugos: 2017 Edition. If you remember my nomination ballot, you'll note that only one of the novellas on my ballot made the final ballot. That's okay. It would be somewhat boring if everyone agreed with me. Obviously, I thought Every Heart a Doorway was fantastic, but if I had the power to add one more story as a Finalist, I would add Matt Wallace's fantastic Lustlocked. If I could add two, I would also add Emily Foster's The Drowning Eyes (my review). Not enough people have been talking about that one. But, since people tend to not fully agree with my taste in fiction, let's take a look at what is actually on the ballot.

This would also be a good time to note that this category is very heavy with Tor.com Publishing, taking four out of the six slots. That's a lot for one publisher, but there are a couple of things working in Tor.com's favor. They publish a LOT of novellas each year, mostly of high quality, and they are both affordable and widely available. Most of the novellas I read from 2016 were from Tor.com Publishing. But, perhaps next year there will be a wider variety of publishers represented.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle (Tor.com publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (Tor.com publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)
Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com publishing)
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

This Census-Taker:  If I went with my initial inclination, This Census-Taker would have been listed below No Award. I first attempted to read this shortly after it was published and only managed perhaps twenty or thirty pages before I set it aside, knowing that it was not for me. It was too nebulous, too vague for me to actually enjoy. I need a bit more of a clear story and understanding of what the heck is actually going on. This Census-Taker gave me none of that. After making the final Hugo ballot I gave it another shot and, this time, I was able to make it through the novella and get more of a sense as to the story Mieville was telling. Unfortunately, it's still not for me. It'll sit above No Award, but not by a lot.

The Ballad of Black Tom: This is a dark, dark story filled with increasing horror. This is heavily inspired by Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", which I would not have known if it wasn't talked about so often when discussing LaValle's novella. I don't know how familiarity with the original story impacts the reading of The Ballad of Black Tom, but I can tell you how that the story works independent of Lovecraft. To quote Chloe's review: LaValle’s writing is compelling, compulsively readable [...], and beautifully constructed. One of the most brilliant qualities of the writing here is the evocation of place, so smoothly and beautifully done throughout the book"

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The second of two novellas on the ballot inspired by and riffing off H.P. Lovecraft. This one is, I believe, inspired by "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath". Given that I've never knowingly read anything written by Lovecraft, whatever Kij Johnson did to put her own spin on the story is beyond me. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe stands so very well on its own. This is just flat out a good story. It's an older woman, a professor at a strange university, going on a quest to find a student who ran away with a dreamer from another world (our world?) and put the school at risk.

A Taste of Honey: I wasn't one of the advocates for Kai Ashante Wilson's previous novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, though I appreciated the craft of the telling. A Taste of Honey was something different, a tighter and more personal story of love, loss, and choices made. Put that way, it doesn't sound remarkable, but the proof (as always) is in the telling. A Taste of Honey is wrenching and beautiful.

Penric and the Shaman:  Lois McMaster Bujold needs no introduction or explanation of just how fantastic a writer she is, but so often when I read one of her stories I am reminded anew just how good she really is. The storytelling is so smooth and compelling that I wanted another hundred pages from Penric and the Shaman (the second volume in the Penric and Desdemona series). Set four years after the previous novella, Penric has grown into a more confident and competent character and is more at ease with having a demon in his mind. In a different year, this might be my number one pick.

Every Heart a Doorway: Receiving a very rare 10/10 here on Nerds of a Feather (my review), Every Heart a Doorway remains a clear standout novella. To quote myself: "Every Heart a Doorway is a beautiful and heart wrenching story of kids who don't belong anywhere except perhaps the one place they can't get back to. By no means have I read everything Seanan McGuire has written, but this has to be her best work. It is damn near perfect in all of the ways that matter to me and to my heart."

My Vote:
1. Every Heart a Doorway
2. Penric and the Shaman
3. A Taste of Honey
4. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
5. The Ballad of Black Tom
6. This Census-Taker

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading. Minnesotan.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Microreview [book]: Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

If you haven’t read this yet, why on earth not? And if you have yet somehow didn’t like it, seriously: why on earth not?

Crossroads of Canopy: Book One in the Titan's Forest Trilogy by [Dyer, Thoraiya]
Dyer, Thoraiya. Crossroads of Canopy. Macmillan, 2017.

You can buy it here, and by the time you’re done reading this review, you’ll want to!

Despite being the target of polarizing reviews (some of which, I am convinced, are consciously or unconsciously motivated by dislike for precisely what makes it unique, namely the unconventional heroine), this story is awesome. Its awesomeness stems partly from its world-building (the unique forest world, consisting of the mysterious Floor, the savage Understory, and the elitist Canopy, with the people and creatures from each a strange and fascinating mix of familiar and alien traits) and partly, perhaps mostly, from its main character. Here’s why heroine Unar is the best female protagonist—and indeed, one of the best protagonists of any biological sex or gender—in years.

Her masculine-without-being-stereotypically-tomboyish femininity:

Unlike the squeaky clean, often virginal heroines of recent popular fantasy and sci fi literature (I’m looking at you, Bella Swan!), Unar has desires…and acts on them. In fact, her coming of age reminded me quite strongly of Tenar’s awakening in Ursula Le Guin’s immortal The Tombs of Atuan. I wonder if Unar’s name might have been inspired by that rather similar story of social and sexual repression, out of which, like two glorious butterflies, these two heroines irrepressibly burst? Unar is not a model of demure femininity; instead, she’s an interesting mix of feminine and (what we might identify as) prototypically masculine traits, especially her tremendous ambition and her hunger for power, qualities that stay-in-the-kitchen traditionalists would doubtless call ‘unfeminine’. Given men’s dismal track record of monopolizing power, controlling female sexuality and indulging their ambitions throughout history (both in the world of Canopy and our own), ‘unfeminine’ girl power doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Thanks for taking a giant dump on the Earthsea cycle, creators of this crappy 2004 miniseries!

Her moral ambiguity:

Generally, heroines are presented as always doing the right thing, so even when, e.g., Katniss Everdeen shoots a certain character in the Hunger Games trilogy, the reader certainly is not meant to question Katniss’s essential goodness. That is, female anti-heroes, true anti-hero(ine) protagonists (not just pure-hearted women forced by cruel circumstances to do bad things, or black-hearted ‘fallen woman’ villains) are very rare, as though even most authors can scarcely conceive of a woman anywhere in the ethical spectrum between the polar extremes of pure goodness and total evil. Unar, however, is decidedly a mixed bag, ethically, and as the reader continues to cheer her on, we too become complicit in some of her darker deeds. I’m not talking about when she’s being mind-controlled, her magic used against her will to harm others; that’s just standard victim stuff. I’m talking about when she does have control: often she acts bravely, and sometimes altruistically, but also occasionally acts out of pure selfishness. Gosh, this mass of contradictions almost sounds like a real person—a lot more than most fairytale heroines, to be sure!

Her overall awesomeness:

Unar is betrayed many times, in many forms, by family, friends and allies, but she is like a juggernaut—nothing can keep her down. She’s also almost unique, given her privileged position, in being quick to recognize the worth of people in a lower social class than her; she both uses their talents for her own ends and, sometimes, uses her own vast powers to help them. She is essentially the only person in her highly and literally stratified world that is able to travel between these distinct layers, combining the best parts of both Canopy and Understory. I can hardly wait until we get a sequel and she begins exploring the still dark and mysterious world of Floor!

The fact that there’s no ‘happily ever after’ in sight:

Usually, books about girls (or boys, for that matter) bring everything to a cathartic and suitably romantic conclusion; the heroine finds and wins the man of her dreams, etc., etc. But Unar has no such too-pat ending waiting for her. Even if no sequel is ever written (though that would be a terrible shame!), Unar’s story is complete in its incompleteness. The worth of a young woman, the sum total of her life, cannot be expressed in hetero(or homo)sexual union—nor is her value necessarily tied to her youth. This story emphasizes that, by focusing more on the life-cycle of the oppressed women of this fictional world, introducing not only Maidens, but also Mothers and Crones, and insisting we the readers take notice of their valuable contributions. Fittingly, at the end Unar finds herself decisively deprived—by her own actions—of the chance to settle down and enjoy a quiet, happy life, and given her morally questionable deeds, her inability to resume her old life, while in a sense a cruel fate, is not a surprising one. It’s only surprising if we the readers have been fed a diet of happily ever afters. I for one am looking forward to future stories about Unar’s fascinating exploits, as something tells me her story is far from over.

 The Math:

Objective Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for making such a morally complex, endlessly fascinating heroine as Unar
                +1 for quite creative bout of world-building

Penalties: None!

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 “Totally sweet!”

See more about our scoring system (under which 8/10 is quite rare!) here.

This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, aficionado of fictional worlds and devotee of earth-shattering heroines like Unar, and reviewer for Nerds of a Feather since ancient times (2013).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

Even though we are only in the middle of May my San Diego Comic Con plans are starting to take shape.  I am going to continue my annual tradition of enjoying some beer at Hop Con on preview night and will be attending my fourth Funko Fundays as well!  The only big piece I need to bring everything full circle is tickets to a taping of Conan.  If you are attending SDCC I hope to see you there!

Pick of the Week:
Secret Empire #2 - Hydra has successfully seized control of the United States of America thanks to manipulating Captain America into thinking he is a sleeper Hydra agent with the help of a cosmic cube.  The superheroes that are fighting back are either trapped in outer space beyond a defense shield or in New York city thanks to a giant bubble.  The superheroes that are trapped in New York City are divided.  Half want to kill Captain America after he destroyed Las Vegas and the other half, based on some intel provided by Rick Jones, is determined to track down the cosmic cube fragments and attempt to write reality back to where things were.  Throw in the twist that Nick Spencer drops at the end of this issue and you have a must read summer event.  Really impressed with Secret Empire thus far.

The Rest:
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #20 - I love how absurd and entertaining this title is and the break it provides from more serious titles.  Currently Melissa Morbeck is rallying her animal army in an attempt to take over the world.  In order to accomplish this and protect her identity, she is using a bear to cosplay as Doctor Doom and hoping to pin the animal rebellion on Squirrel Girl.  Any comic with cosplaying bears is ok in my book.  If the humor in books like this isn't just right then it falls flat.  Fortunately, between Ryan North's writing and Erica Henderson's art, a happy medium of humor and fun is achieved and readers are treated to a fun break from more serious titles or the chaos that we exist in on a daily basis.

Daredevil #20 - We finally learn how the Blue Children (Kilgrave's children) restored the secret identity of Daredevil, but we also learn what this cost Matt Murdock from an emotional standpoint.  Having the genie back in the bottle was and is great for Daredevil, but in many ways it impacted the relationships and bonds that Matt was able to form.  I really enjoyed this arc and am happy that Daredevil's secret identity is under wraps.  The ability of authors to re-write characters that have been part of us for so many years never ceases to amaze me.

Royal City #3 - The drama escalates in Jeff Lemire's latest entry into the story of a dysfunctional family that is dealing with a lot of issues.  Each issue is an emotional journey as you get to know each member of the Pike family and the impact of their father's stroke, a factory that might be closing, and the haunting memories of their youngest brother who drowned many years ago.  This series is quite heavy, but Lemire really shines at connecting the reader with the characters in his book to the point where you really have a vested interest in what happens in the book.  So far this series has brought me back his earlier work Essex County, which almost made it on one of my course syllabus as required reading!

Batman #23 - Batman teams up with Swamp Thing in an attempt to solve the murder of Swamp Thing's father.  Written in a burst of short chapters, this one shot is a fun journey through some basic detective work.  I was skeptical about reading more with Swamp Thing after the disappointing R.L. Stine series, but this was a fun issue that felt a bit like a short true crime show on A&E.  Nothing terribly special, but definitely interesting and something that kept my attention from start to finish.

Birthright #24 - I will be honest and say that I am a bit lost in this series and feel that a summary to open each issue would help a lot.  Having said that, it feels like we are racing towards an epic finale that may have some huge consequences for Mikey and the decisions he made.  Mikey's family from Earth is finally reunited as he wages his wars on the mages for leaving Terranos at the hands of Lore.  Toss in the return of a villain we haven't seen for a while and I need to go back and re-read this series.  Fortunately I have really enjoyed this one and look forward to the refresher.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

2017 Hugo Award Voter's Packet

The Voter's Packet for the Hugo Awards has been released and made available to all members of WorldCon 75 and Nerds of a Feather has put together a compilation of what we feel represents the best and the breadth of our collective work published in 2016. While the purpose of the Voter's Packet is to help eligible voters make an informed decision when casting their ballots, we wanted to also make this available to all of our readers who may want to take a look back at what we did last year. As such, below is The G's introduction to the Voter's Packet followed by the Table of Contents with links to each of the essays, reviews, and features we included in the packet. 

If you'd like, you can also download the files we included in the Voter's Packet and take Nerds of a Feather on the go.

We hope you enjoy!


The G

In 2012, Vance Kotrla and I decided to start an all-purpose nerd blog. The concept was simple: write about what we like and what we don’t, and keep the subject matter diverse enough that we would never get bored. We were entering a rich and vibrant ecosystem, where both traditional fanzines and their online descendants played an important role by linking fans to authors and publishers, while providing reliable sources of news and opinion on topics that the mainstream media (still) rarely touch upon. This was fandom’s fourth estate, if you will — and it was awesome. I remember reading sites like A Dribble of Ink, The Book Smugglers, and SF Signal and thinking, “Can we do that too?”

The site’s guiding principles were to avoid “grade inflation” to the best of our ability, and to cover as many pockets of fandom as possible. This first principle is reflected almost daily in our review scoring system, which is designed to distribute normally around a theoretical mean score of 5, so that a 7 is pretty darn good and 10s are reserved for works of transcendent quality. In five years, we’ve given out less than a dozen 10s.

To put it another way, in a world where every new Christopher Nolan movie immediately lands in the IMDB Top 250, we wanted to be a place where fans could expect a little less hyperbole, especially when discussing new works.

The second principle, to cover as much of fandom as possible, found expression in our growing team of contributors. Vance and I each had areas we specialized in (SF/F novels and cult cinema, respectively), but we recognized there was no way we two alone could do justice to the tremendous work and innovation taking place in short fiction, comics, video and tabletop games, television, and so forth. So it is a tremendous point of pride that as our readership has expanded, so have our voices.

The many recurring series featured on our site have become one of our signatures, I think. Thursday Morning Superhero, which runs weekly, takes a look at the new comics that arrive in shops every Wednesday. Beyond that, we have: the We Rank ‘Em and 6 Books listicle series; New Books Spotlight, which highlights upcoming books we’re excited about; The Monthly Round, which pairs the month’s best new short fiction with adult beverages; Essentials, which aims to serve as an introduction for those readers who may be new to a particular area of fandom; annual Summer Reading and Holiday Gift Guide series; and two forms of roundtable discussion (Blogtable and Perspectives).

We also run special post series, such as 2015’s Cyberpunk Revisited, and the currently ongoing series Dystopian Visions. One of my personal favorite moments from the past five years came when Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and Paul DiFilippo all agreed to participate in an open conversation on cyberpunk and its enduring legacy.

Five years on, and we have been nominated for a Hugo — the ultimate sign of having “arrived.” Only, the ecosystem does not feel as vibrant as it once did. Some of the best sites have closed shop – including both A Dribble of Ink and SF Signal. Meanwhile, the landscape has been affected by institutional- level changes, with conversations about blog posts largely migrating to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and so forth.

None of this is bad, per se — just different. And in a few cases, we’ve been able to provide an online home to talented writers moving on from these, or from other sites. All the same, fandom still needs its fanzines. So while we are excited to be nominated for a Hugo, we are even more excited to keep fighting the good fight alongside our fellow nominees and all the other great fan blogs out there.

In the end, we are just a group of opinionated people writing about what unites us in giddy nerd joy or reduces us to puddles of apocalyptic nerd rage. Most importantly, we do it out of love.

What follows is a small sampling of what we’ve done over the past year. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed contributing to its production.

Table of Contents

1. Stranger Things: A New Dramatic Animal?
2. The Obelisk Gate
3. Tower of Swallows
4. The Last Days of New Paris
5. My Favorite Stories Don't Get Nominated: A Hugo Love Story
6. Mystic Vale
7. Arrival
8. About That New Star Wars Movie... 
9. Snyderisms
10. Stranger Than Fiction: Merchants of Doubt
11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
12. Thursday Morning Superhero
13. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
14. The Bone Clocks
15. WisCon My Home Con
16. We Rank 'Em: The Star Trek TV Series
17. Nerd Music: Interview with Makeup & Vanity Set's Matthew Pusti
18. Holiday Gift Guide: Gadgets, Electronics, & Apps
19. Turbo Kid
20. 6 Books With Kate Elliott
21. Essentials: 24 Cult Films For Late, Late Nights

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 04/2017

Thirsty for some great SFF short fiction? Pull up a stool and let me pour you some recommendations. This Round's on me.

April showers bring May flowers, or so the saying goes. And this month is certainly the first that feels like spring has finally arrived. For me, though, spring is not about the green of growing things. It's about the snow melting away and revealing all the corpses and downed branches and unfinished projects buried by winter's swift arrival. So while May might be a month of new growth, April is a month very much concerned with taking stock of the landscape and mapping the wounds the winter has left.

Which fits wonderfully with the stories on tap this month. These are pieces that reveal histories of pain, abuse, and oppression. That do not flinch away from examining the extent of the damage done, the devastation left over after the storms and the crush of cold. There are genocides and apocalypses and disappearances and murders all to be found in the span of these stories, and yet there's also something else, something that doesn't erase what has happened but creates a space to move forward. Hope. Because though spring is about taking stock, it's also about making plans. And all of these stories don't stop at the tallying of wrongs or the airing of grievances. These stories look to what comes next, and each of them imagine a spring giving way to summer, of pain giving way to the possibility of healing.

So without further delay, prepare your palates for a delightful tour of April's SFF short fiction. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - April 2017

Art by Sunny Efemena
"Underworld 101" by Mame Bougouma Diene (Omenana)
Notes: Dense and sweet with a taste of a sun that might not exist, pouring a deep amber that might be mistaken for gold but for the sinking feeling that everything is not what it seems.
Pairs with: Wheat Ale
Review: This is the first of the stories in this month’s Round that introduces a main character with the same name as the author. Here Bougouma is a man at a University, and a man having trouble with his memories. The setting here is startling and yet all too plausible, a world that has been ravaged by overpopulation and scarcity to the point that many people are encouraged to travel below to the Underworld, where there is apparently space and work and yet it’s a place that most people want to avoid. Bougouma’s life is dominated by his school, by classes that seem to repeat year after year and a budding relationship with another student. It’s almost perfect, except that he can never remember what happens to him when he’s supposed to be on break visiting home, and there’s the specter of his younger brother constantly flitting about but never anywhere that Bougouma can find, the two always just missing each other. And what begins as a near future science fiction story slowly morphs into something a bit more horrifying as the reality of the situation begins to bleed through, as Bougouma begins to realize that there’s something wrong, that something is going on that’s not right. Meanwhile the story unfolds from his brother’s point of view, as well, as the momentum of the story acts like a slaughterhouse conveyor belt herding everyone toward destruction, the truth only breaking through the surface briefly, and perhaps too late to help anyone. It’s a cannily crafted and complex story about desire and corruption and harm, where even if you think you’ve escaped the horrors of a broken system you can find yourself still in the thick of it.

"Champollion's Foot" by Haris A Durrani (Mithila Review)
Notes: Layer upon layer of slightly conflicting flavors give this drink a weight and a darkness tinged with the milky expanse of the galaxy, of stars and distance and the crush of history.
Pairs with: Milk Stout
Review: This story jumps from perspective to perspective through a series of people involved in the search for an alien world, for an alien people that might hold the key to saving a young man infected with a strange virus. And with each jump in perspective, with each added piece to this beautiful mosaic novelette, the experience deepens. The piece in part a mystery, a question of what has happened not only to the afflicted man whose very genetic code seems to be in the process of rewriting itself, but also to the alien civilization that created it—an alien civilization that isn’t supposed to exist. The story builds with an increasing momentum, meticulously fleshing out this galaxy where humanity is supposed to be the only sentience, but where there is growing and irrefutable evidence that not only is that not the case, but actions have been taken by certain corporations to cover up the truth. The story looks at the weight of colonization and expansion, of seeing the vast galaxy as merely a stage for human exploitation. The characters are all in very different places, many of them engaged in various resistances to the corporations but also most of them defeated and unsure of how to exist apart from the harm that has been done in the name of humanity. They all face a sort of crisis of conscience, to determine what they should do when they uncover the truth and the scope of the tragedy before them. The story is a moving and sweeping portrait of erasure and reclamation. It recognizes the vast damage done in the name of exploration and expansion and exploitation, and seeks to find a way forward, that drags the shadowy work of conquest into the light to hopefully watch it shrivel and die.

Art by Sandro Castelli
“And in That Sheltered Sea, a Colossus” by Michael Matheson (Shimmer)
Notes: Clear and still like the sky after the end of the world, with a bitter, soft taste full of ghosts and memories that can’t seem to stay drowned.
Pairs with: Pale Ale
Review: This story follows Ebunoluwa, a survivor living in the skeleton of a fallen city, in a world that has been torn apart by conflict and war. Not much remains of the past, just the enormous bodies of colossuses that litter the world and the memory of the creatures they slew, a bloody war that decimated the world and left the survivors scattered. Ebunoluwa lives in both the shadow of that conflict and the shadow of her mother’s contempt at not “overcoming” the end of the world to carry on the family by reproducing, something that might be as much burden as inheritance. Now living alone with just the ghosts of her ancestors and the restless dead of the city to fill the air around her, Ebunoluwa is shocked out of her routine by the arrival of a traveler—one who seems to offer a kind of healing Ebunoluwa forgot she might need. The story is very much about survival and living, about abuse and healing. For the world and Ebunoluwa both, there is no going back to the way things were before the war, before the tragedy that left Ebunoluwa unable to bear children. In the aftermath of the damage done, there is the fear that there is no moving on, that the graves of her parents like the body of the colossus is too present a reminder of what has happened and what has been lost. What remains seems simply to cling to what remains, to the memories of how things were even if there is no hope of going back. And yet with the arrival of this stranger to break the cycle of doubt and fear and abuse, Ebunoluwa is able to remember what it was like when she was young and the world still seemed full of possibilities. She remembers that even though she’s not as spry as she once was, she’s far from dead, and the spark of passion and curiosity and the desire for adventure still burns within her. The story is a beautiful exploration of acknowledging the harm done in the past but letting it rest and moving on so that life and the world can be more than just a graveyard.

Art by Eddie Mendoza
"Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus" by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld)
Notes: Pouring a brazen orange, what could have been a bitter experience is made brighter by the introduction of tendrils of citrus and an aromatic pop that smells like hope.
Pairs with: Citrus IPA
Review: This story does a fantastic job of complicating the “raised animal” trope of science fiction, here with octopuses on an alien world where they have been altered in order to be of greater utility to humanity. Only humanity is gone, their fate uncertain, and the octopuses remain, sharing their memories collectively and communicating much differently than humans. The story for me becomes a lot about responsibility and harm. The octopuses have been altered against their will, have been displaced across space to a world they never chose to live on. They have their own society, their own structure and way of life, and yet they are also curious, driven, and eventually they begin to uncover what has happened to them, especially when they discover a human who was left behind, another victim of humanity and yet part of it as well, and it’s in that discovery that the story finds a lot of its depth, as well as its beauty. I love how the story handles the human-centric world that the octopuses came out of, how imperialism and human supremacy have led to their abandonment on a strange world and yet for humans this seemed a kindness. Like no one would say no to being made more “civilized.” It tackles this very human-centric way of thinking and shows that the octopuses are not lesser for being very different, that though their methods might seem forgeign and inferior because they might not work for humans, for the octopuses themselves it’s the best system. I also like how the story begins to approach reconciliation between the octopuses and the humans, a fragile arrangement that is less than trust, but still leaves room to move forward, to cooperate and try to make something that will work for all people based on respect and consent.

"It Happened To Me: I Was Brought Back to Avenge My Death, But Chose Justice Instead" by Nino Cipri (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: A taste like waking up and a deep and smoky flavor overcomes the seemingly-impenetrable darkness of the pour and leads the taster to a place of joy and sweetness.
Pairs with: Coffee Stout
Review: Revenge is the name of the game when a woman is killed by a local corporation in an effort to silence her labor organizing efforts and brought back by a talking raven to punish those responsible. The story recognizes right away the shape of the expected story, the shape of what we are taught by popular culture and stories justice looks like. Here we have this bird pushing for the traditional response to being murdered and brought back to life—to become a killing machine, a monster. And yet the story captures the voice and the perspective of the main character in this great way, showing how even despite what has happened to her, she can see beyond the individual tragedy of what has happened to the systemic problems at the heart of the violence. She knows that retaliating, that meeting her murder with more murders, doesn’t solve anything, or at the very least doesn’t have anything to do with justice. Because justice is already her vocation, her business. And as a labor organizer she knows that the real villain here is a system that does not value human life. Which I think the story does a great job of examining. So instead of falling for the magic of revenge and instead of giving into the pressure of this bird to find her answer with the report of a gun, the main character works to go further. To dig deeper. To leverage her own murder in order to effect some larger change, to bring down those responsible and continue on the work she was killed for doing. It’s a piece with a great sense of humor and charming voice and it subverts the hell out of the revenge narrative.

Art by Julie Dillon
"And Then There Were (N-One)" by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny)
Notes: Pouring the gold of a sunrise over an infinity of dimensions, the nose is a heady mix of spices and aromas, a multitude of flavors captured in a single drink, with a moving complexity that is a joy to experience and enough alcohol content to have you seeing double...or triple.
Pairs with: Tripel
Review: This story delves into the timeless question of “What if?” More specifically, it imagines a convention made up entirely of iterations of the same person, who also may or may not be the author of the story, Sarah Pinkser. And who wouldn’t want to check out a gathering where every person is a reflection of yourself, a different path you might have traveled but for circumstance? For the “main” Sarah of the story, an insurance investigator, it proves too tempting to pass up, and yet almost immediately upon arrival at the dimensional nexus-point (the hotel holding the convention), she finds herself pulled into a mystery both wholly unprecedented and eerily intimate. It then comes down to this one Sarah, out of everyone attending, to figure out what has happened and determine who is in danger. And the story examines closely what makes a person unique and what blurs together. The idea of the convention is fun and freeing and does a delightful job of showing how these Sarahs differ and how they all draw on certain common events. The story also takes a delicate and complex approach to the idea of choice and determination and justice, with the main character forced to examine the darkness within herself by being confronted by the darkness within other versions of herself. There are also a number of great Easter Eggs and references and the panel names at this convention are just gold. It’s fun to see so many Sarahs all in the same place, and the way that it forms the backbone of the mystery is fascinating and intense. As a novella the story is the longest on the Round this month, but it has no trouble maintaining its pacing or vision. And even with everyone being Sarah Pinsker in the story the cast is still engaging and diverse. It’s a story in some ways about bold steps, the decision of the Sarah within the story to attend this convention no less brave than the decision of the author to write a story completely populated by versions of herself. In both instances, the risk more than pays off, and the result in a brilliant and bizarre story about self, community, and murder.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Microreview [tv show] Sense8: Season 2

Sense8, the Netflix show from The Wachowski Sisters, seems to be one of the more divisive series going: everyone I talk to either strongly hates it or strongly loves it. Having watched the first season, last year, I fell firmly into the second camp (while still being able to acknowledge the many flaws of the overly ambitious, sometimes unintentionally silly/ridiculous, show). So I was looking forward to the second season. A quick head’s up, since this is a review for the entire second season, there may be minor spoilers for both seasons one and two. If you haven’t watched and plan to, it might be best to come back here after viewing.

The second season picks up after the Christmas special (which technically counts as the first episode of the season) and follows are sensate cluster (a group of people tied together mentally/physically/emotionally, despite being thousands of miles apart) and the conspiracy/ shadowy company they have become involved with—including the sinister Whispers (who is hunting the sensates down). The show continues its story jumps between the sensates, often within the space of a single scene as they jump into and out of each other lives. These are Riley and Will, who are most closely connected to (and in some cases too hemmed in by) the over-arching show mythology, hacker Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita (played by Freema Agyeman, who is delightful, all you Doctor Who fans who are haters of her previous character—Maartha Jones—y’all still are wrong), action star Lito who’s coming to terms with being publicly outed, Wolfgang a criminal in Berlin, Kala who is still finding the footing in her new marriage, Capheus who is being courted by a group to run for office (in a far better storyline than he was given last season), and Sun (played by the phenomenal Doona Bae) who is still vowing revenge on her brother.

So what does the season do? Does it live up to expectations, falter, or exceed them? In some ways, it’s all three. It falters in its depiction of the overarching mythology, which is often explained in huge info-dumps and never quite lives up to its promise. Basically, I’m only invested in it, because I’m so invested in the characters it affects.  It lives up to expectations in its continued beautiful film-work and visual palette combined with some astoundingly well choreographed action sequences alongside excellent acting and a pitch-perfect soundtrack—which should be no surprise because of Tom Tykwer’s work on the show (the best example of this is a scene set in three places that utilizes Ben Howard’s “Small Things” to achingly beautiful effect). But, most, importantly, how does it exceed them? By opening its world of sensates (something I was interested in seeing if they would do) to allow more clusters to be seen and in continuing what I consider the most important element of its show—its absolute joy in humanity.

The thing about Sense8 is it can be boring, it can be silly and ridiculous in many aspects, it can be a little irritating. However, it’s one of the first shows I’ve watched that puts so much emphasis on the queer experience and in such a broad-ranging and optimistic way. It also celebrates moments of community and connection, finding that moments of kindness and beauty are where its protagonists find the most connection. I also find it deeply refreshing to be watching a show, especially right now, where the superpower that drives it is essentially empathy with a global view.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for optimism, +1 for the Lito/Hernando/Dani story which is just wonderfully done and each actor is perfect, +1 for being visually stunning
Penalties: -1 for the mythology not often living up the show that surrounds it, -1 for sometimes making me roll my eyes

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 “very high quality/standout in its category”


POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reading Deryni: The Harrowing of Gwynedd

Welcome to the fourth of a six part series of essays focusing on Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels (you may find the first, second, and third parts here). As I am physically incapable of actually reviewing these novels with any semblance of objectivity because they've imprinted themselves deep into my heart, what I am going to do instead is write about the aspects of each of the "Camber Era" novels which have stuck with me throughout the years and which I find intriguing today. Shall we continue?

"I do not pray for a conversion of the Deryni," Secorim muttered through clenched teeth. "I pray for their destruction!"

"And I pray for deliverance from their influence!" Javan retorted, knowing he must defuse that line of hatred immediately, or all was lost. "I pray for deliverance, and today my prayer was answered."

Everything is awful.

We have not forgotten the massacre near the end of Camber the Heretic and just how bad life in Gwynedd has been for the Deryni living there. The title The Harrowing of Gwynedd should be quite enough to realize that things are not going to get better any time soon. Also, readers of the Kelson era novels know well enough how many hundreds of years for uneasy inroads to be made.

For now, we are still in the early days of the persecution of the Deryni race. With Cinhil dead, his underage son Alroy is on the throne of Gwynedd and under the control of the human regents who are far more interested in consolidating their own power and destroying the Deryni as completely as possible. There are few moments of grace here.

Instead, what we have is a pervading sense of numbness. The regents have their "pet" Deryni collaborating under extreme duress against their own race and doing the bidding of their masters. We have the state sponsored murder of Declan Carmody's wife and children done in front of him and his subsequent torture and and execution (though, he dies during said torture). We have the scourging of Javan for defying Archbishop Hubert. We have the creation of Custodes Fidei, the new religious order permitted to have soldiers of the faith as well as the responsibility for all religious instruction in Gwynedd - which doesn't sound terrible on its face, except that they are also given "automatic forgiveness for malicide", which essentially grants these soldiers of God "the license to murder Deryni". Yeah, they're friggin delightful (and they will only get worse in the next two books).

I don't have a strong memory of this book and what I do remember is that this is Evaine's book, but that's only half of the story. There are two parallel stories told in The Harrowing of Gwynedd.  One storyline is Javan back at the capital trying to find a way that he might be able to survive and thrive and provide information and access to his Deryni allies and friends. It is everything he can do to hide his hatred and disgust of what the regents are doing. Javan, being one of the three sons of Cinhil, has begun to develop magical powers - powers which should by rights only be developing in Alroy as King, but perhaps because Alroy is spending his days drugged into submission by the regents Javan is instead the beneficiary.

With those powers, we get back to one of the concerns I had with the previous three novels I wrote about it. In this novel we see Javan invade the mind of Hubert MacInnis and set magical compulsions to both guide and force Hubert into actions and behaviors he would never have considered on his own. Now, let's all acknowledge that Hubert is flat out evil and an example of a churchman whose every action is at utter opposition to the religion he is supposed to follow and, in fact, lead as Primate of Gwynedd. Previous novels gave many examples of true men of faith trying to follow the teachings of the church and live lives in imitation of Christ. The Harrowing of Gwynedd shows the other side of that coin, giving examples of men using the church to further their own aims.

So, when Javan uses his power on Hubert we see it as a good thing, an opportunity to mitigate the evil Hubert is planning, an opportunity to protect himself. But, this is also the very sort of action that causes humanity to hate and be fearful of the Deryni. Though Javan is not Deryni, he has their powers, and he is using it in the same way to take control of Hubert, to take control of random guards, and to demonstrate to everyone that Deryni can do what they want to whomever they want. Javan is one of my favorite characters, but the older I get the more I can see the cracks in the armor of the "virtuous" Deryni heroes. We read these books with the Deryni and the friends of the Deryni has heroes and as the persecuted minority - which they are, but even the good guys are doing ethically questionable stuff that we don't question because they're the good guys.

But let's move on to the part of the novel which I so clearly remember. This is the volume where Evaine truly comes into her own and set such a mark on me that until my re-read of the first three Camber era novels I had thought she played a significant role, and she doesn't. But here, almost freed of the shadow of her dead father, she comes into her own and steps into a significant leadership role of the Camberian Council and is the major player of this novel, along with Javan (who I remembered having a much lesser role than he does).

I said that Evaine is almost freed of the shadow of her dead father, and that's very accurate because her driving motivation for this novel is to research the magic required to return her father to life (she thinks he may be trapped between life and death). So, while she is a powerful character here, her actions are all still on her father's behalf. Where Evaine is at her best, though, is in the depth of the research into the spell to help her father. She shines as a researcher delving deep into deryni magic and lore - which gets to the heart of one of my favorite aspects of the Deryni novels. I love the heritage Kurtz reveals. I'd just love to see more of Evaine with the Council and how she helped develop the next generation of Deryni and her Healer children. Alas.

Had Evaine lived though this novel and into the next thirty plus years, I can only imagine the things she would have discovered, learned, and passed on about long lost and newly found aspects of magic. Instead, what we get are glimpses.

Here Evaine discovers the tomb of Orin and Jodotha, two legendary Deryni mystics. She is on the cusp of such great discoveries - but her focus is on restoring Camber to life, a man who had lived at least two lifetimes in his day.

I want to know so much more about Orin and Jodotha (there have long been rumors Kurtz will write that novel, too), the Airsid, the dark times of the "barbarian incursions, the failure of the Pax Romanum, the cost of the Moorish repulsion". I'd love a deep dive into Deryni history. We never quite get that anywhere else in the series.

Next up is my introduction to Katherine Kurtz and the world of the Deryni: King Javan's Year. Sometimes I start fairly deep into a series and still get hooked.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Microreview [book]: Wrath, by John Gwynne

A satisfying denouement to a tetralogy teetering on the edge of drowning in grimdark savagery

The reviewer isn't kidding about 'all manner of betrayals'!

Gwynne, John. Wrath. Orbit, 2016.
You can buy this book here.

A fundamental principle of fantasy (all?) literature is that a sufficiently melodramatic, cathartic victory/ending can only be achieved through the sacrifice of (usually) second-tier characters. These are the ones you can remember, whose names and backstories are vivid in your minds, but whose survival isn’t absolutely essential to the everything-and-everyone-tied-together happy ending the book or series has been moving towards since page one. A series like Harry Potter, hurtling towards happiness, could never dare off one of the three principals, forcing Rowling to select her final victims from the B-list: Snape, one of the Weasley twins, etc. Killing anyone more central to the narrative would jeopardize the catharsis. And I don’t mean to single out Rowling/Harry Potter: this is a near-universal feature of fantasy literature. A few B-listers have to die nobly so that the A-listers can live happily ever after.

Enter John Gwynne, who has taken this principle and grimdarked it. The essential calculus hasn’t changed—the principals will still survive and earn their happy ending—but the sheer quantity of second-tier characters required to throw themselves into harm’s way boggles the mind. Readers of the first three books of this tetralogy will be quite familiar with Gwynne’s penchant for throwing beloved but still slightly peripheral characters into the meat grinder, but he has savagely upped the ante here. I thought at one point of the memorable exchange from Casablanca: “What is [this book] like?” – “Oh, just like [the other three], only more so.” Remember Rowling’s judicious choice of a single quasi-central figure, one of the Weasley twins, as scapegoat? Gwynne puts almost the entire cast of B-listers on the sacrificial altar. I haven’t spoiled the story if I say: expect the very-most central characters to survive (obviously—no writer dare do otherwise) and practically no one else!

Multiply this scene of grief at a dead B-lister by a billion, and you will understand Wrath

This savagery may or may not register in the reader’s mind as a bad thing (it struck me as gratuitously excessive, but others might respond more favorably). But one feature of Gwynne’s approach does seem unambiguously problematic: his apparently quite dark view of mercy. Several times in the series, but especially in this fourth and final volume, “bad guys” spared by well-meaning heroes take their unexpected reprieve to (often literally) stab those same heroes in the back at the first opportunity. It’s as though Gwynne believes a) bad guys are incapable of change, or even of admitting their guilt, and (perhaps as a result) b) mercy is always a terrible mistake.

Take Nathair, who has sensed the error of his ways. Gwynne seems to be building to a tearful confession, leaving open the possibility of a way back to the light even for a treacherous viper like Nathair, only to slam that door shut and have the king double down on his evil deeds. Truly we are living in the age of the double-down! But the worst example of the heavy cost of mercy must be Rafe, who once again seemed potentially redeemable (indeed, quite a close approximation of the Harry-Draco dynamic is at play with Corban-Rafe), only to amass quite a body-count after the good guys (foolishly, it would seem) let him go. Naturally, some of the evildoers in the world, if granted a new lease on life, will misuse their second chance, to be sure, but since Gwynne’s only positive examples of the potential of bad guys to change were Veradis (the honorable if naïve warrior) and Alcyon (the honorable giant forced into evil due to magic and the fact his wife and son were held hostage), neither of whom, of course, is actually bad at all, his message is clear: genuine bad guys can’t learn from their mistakes, and will betray their merciful benefactors 100% of the time.

Ironically, this dark-as-grimdark-can-be attrition of B-listers and total denunciation of the idea, for bad guys, of moral rehabilitation after doing something terrible has restored my idealistic faith in humanity. I’m left strangely optimistic, muttering “Surely we humans can’t be that bad?”

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for keeping victory for Corban at all almost inconceivable until the very last minute, +1 for managing a fairly emotionally satisfying denouement

Penalties: -1 for the somewhat gratuitous/monotonous near-total annihilation of the second-tier characters, -1 for reinforcing the pessimistic idea that those who have once done wrong have essentially no chance of reform (and instead will stab a bunch of beloved B-listers in the back)

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 “An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws”

Read more on our nerdy scoring system here.

This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, still an unabashed optimist despite a steady diet of the most savage grimdark out there, and reviewer for Nerds of a Feather since 2013.